Depending on whom you ask, lo-fi hip-hop is a creative feat of the internet age, a punchline, or a meaningless label tacked on to souped-up elevator music.
The genre started roughly a decade ago among a loose network of artists who repurposed last-century drum machines and samples for its signature mellow sound. But in the past few years, lo-fi artist Celín Carlo-Gonzalez said, its audience has changed — from aural tinkerers on SoundCloud to crowds of listeners on YouTube and Spotify seeking unobtrusive music for working, studying or doing nothing at all. The tracks blur productivity and leisure, with labels such as “Beats to chill/study/relax,” and some have become wildly popular.
Carlo-Gonzalez’s trajectory has mirrored the genre’s, though she said she’s not the typical artist. She started making beats as a hobby about 10 years ago, when she was 14. “I was very, very bad at it,” she said. But she got to college and honed her skills. Her music appeared on top playlists — and one day, spilled over from YouTube and Spotify into the physical world. A friend told her he heard one of her tracks at a Starbucks in Costa Rica. About a year ago, she started hearing lo-fi leaking out of Bay Area coffee shops and at least one bar.
To most listeners, it’s probably surprising her track was recognized at all: Lo-fi’s grainy, instrumental beats have grown successful — and infamous — precisely for their undifferentiated sound.
“It’s just bland” — like George Winston for zoomers, said Glenn Schellenberg, a former rock musician and composer who now studies music and cognition at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, as he listened to lo-fi for the first time.
“Some of what drives lo-fi’s audience are businesses or people who want something kind of calming,” said Carlo-Gonzalez, now a law student at Stanford University known to fans as Seneca B. Newer algorithms have encouraged a kind of featureless formula, she said: Her breakout hit on Spotify, in fact, felt like one of her least finished tracks.
The genre’s effect on listeners is remarkably consistent. “I like this kind of music to get myself in the right mindset to work,” said Leon Wu, a student at the Victorian College of the Arts in Australia. Lo-fi is a soothing response to an anxious and burned-out world, comparable to the way people use apps like Headspace or Calm, he said.
As one commenter puts it, “Helps me escape the bone chilling realities of our modern world for 51 minutes and 31 seconds.”
Some of the most popular songs and playlists are almost purposefully shapeless, a globalized mishmash of time and place. Artists borrow from jazz, soul, and ’80s and ’90s hip-hop, concocting the sort of unobtrusive pulse that one might barely notice at a rooftop bar. Young Europeans run accounts with 2 million to 4 million subscribers, livestreaming playlists compiled from artists around the world.
Why has this genre become so popular for its effect on work and relaxation? And how is its form so perfect for its function?
Researchers have studied the effects of music on work for decades. Little of that research is conclusive or representative enough to apply to every work style and taste. But it can offer a few guidelines, said Teresa Lesiuk, director and associate professor of music therapy at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music.
Good work music doesn’t inspire feelings that are too positive or too negative. Music with lyrics is usually distracting. A slower tempo should help relax you; a faster one will amp you up (think workout playlists — there, Schellenberg said, music’s positive effect is a little more established).
It’s not that music magically makes you smarter, Lesiuk said — an idea that got distorted in the 1990s. It’s that it affects your mood, which affects cognition.
Workers use music as an “aural cocoon,” to tune out distractions, to switch between tasks, to relax or to focus, Lesiuk said. The standard formula may look like this: A person is stressed. She chooses the music. The music helps regulate her mood, which has a positive effect on cognition, which has a positive effect on productivity.
“The strongest way that we respond to music is the associations we’ve had with it,” Lesiuk said. The videos’ album-art tropes — serene anime loops of children, or cartoon animals, studying — may hint at “people wanting to feel relaxed, going back to their childhood, going back to before things were stressful,” Wu said.
Mix these desired effects together, and you may get something like lo-fi. Its slow tempo, lack of words and especially its dependence on nostalgia can be, for at least a few million listeners, a powerful aid to relaxed work.
If you cycle through enough playlists, YouTube may start directing you toward other instrumental throwbacks to work to, from the faux cassette-tape grain of lo-fi to vintage video game soundtracks, designed as they were to be looped indefinitely over focused tasks.
That use of music as a tool has a long history. In his book “The Longing for Less: Living With Minimalism,” published last month, journalist Kyle Chayka describes how ambient music developed into a “tool to enhance your focus on other things.” The French composer Erik Satie created “furniture music,” designed to be heard but not listened to, in the early 20th century — a precursor to elevator music, Muzak, Brian Eno and today’s chill Spotify playlists.
But ambient music “needs to be updated for current tastes,” Chayka writes, “since what registers as unobtrusive is always changing.” In other words: “It’s just New Age music with different instruments,” Schellenberg said. “People are using it in exactly the same way,” he added.
“Wow, it’s really boring,” he said.
Others have felt much the same way, earning lo-fi some notoriety among musicians and critics (as well as a winking nod on the zeitgeisty Netflix show “BoJack Horseman”). Some worry the genre, already loosely defined, has become “meaningless.” The music writer Amanda Petrusich called it “apathetic music to make spreadsheets to.”
And plenty of in-jokes mock how easy it is for a novice artist to ride a formula to popularity, Carlo-Gonzalez said. But she isn’t offended. Is it really so possible to separate music’s purpose as art from its use as a tool? “For me,” she said, “it’s not pejorative to call it elevator music.”